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Monday, September 18, 2017
$10.99 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.75* of five
The Publisher Says: The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.
The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.
Earth has other plans.
The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.
Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?
My Review: What I love about reading Dave Hutchinson's work is the certainty that he's going to flip the script on you at some point. Usually just after you've become comfortable with the world as it is. And always to the effect that you're longing to go back to the way things were. But, just like life, that's not on the table. You can't unsee/unhear/unlearn what's happened. It's a bear, innit?
Why would a sane person like that?! As if I'd know what sane people like, still less why.
In the space of a novella, Hutchinson packs a space opera's worth of concepts and creations. Chief among them is the first-ever pop culture mention of kudzu in a positive light. Kudzu for the uninitiated is a terrifying invader of the southern USA. It destroys any and every man-made thing in its path. It terrifies me. But given its incredibly thoroughgoing colonial growth habit and ability to fix nitrogen, it makes sense to us it for structural elements in a hab(itat) in space.
Stuff still gives me the willies.
I love the use of quantum-entangled bits (qubits) for instant communication across immense distances. It sounds so plausible that I just assigned it the mental label ansible and didn't think much about it again while I was reading. It is cause for pause that I'm using one fictional communication concept to explain another in my mind...maybe I read too much sci fi...naaahhh, not possible. Quantity "too much sci fi" not defined.
It's also the script-flipping ending of the book that leads me into the star-granting stratosphere. It's delicious. It's like the Big Bang...it leads to more questions than answers, which is exactly how I want my fiction. I began to go back over the beginning as I read the ending. It made more sense. It made different sense, really, not more, and that's something to savor. I've read a lot of books in my life so I'm always after a new sensation. When I find one it makes me very happy.
Which leads to that missing quarter-star. Why, given the praise I'm heaping up here, didn't I give the damn thing the full five?
Ninety-six pages. Ninety-lousy-fucking-six pages. Really, Dave? There'd better be more stories set in this universe.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
$17.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: Graham Greene's masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity.
When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.
Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith.
My Review: An excellent book. Simply magnificent writing, as always, but more than that the story is perfectly paced (a thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg The Power and the Glory) and deeply emotional (another thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg Travels With My Aunt).
Greene himself didn't like the book, which was a species of roman à clef. I suspect, though I don't have proof, that he was simply uncomfortable at how much of his inner life he revealed in the book. Scobie's infidelity and his fraught relationship with the wife he's saddled with must have been bad reading for Mrs. Greene. But the essential conflict of the book is man versus church, the giant looming monster of judgment and hatred that is Catholicism. Greene's convert's zeal for the idiotic strictures, rules, and overarching dumb "philosophy" of the religion are tested here, and ultimately upheld, though the price of the struggle and the upholding aren't scanted in the text.
Stories require conflicts to make them interesting, and the essential question an author must address is "what's at stake here?" The more intense and vivid the answer to that question is, the more of an impact the story is able to make. Greene was fond of the story he tells here, that of an individual against his individuality. He told and retold the story. The state, the colonial power whose interests Scobie/Greene serves, is revealed in the text to be an uncaring and ungrateful master; the rules of the state are broken with remarkably few qualms when the stakes get high enough. It is the monolith of the oppressive church, admonishing Scobie of his "moral" failings and withholding "absolution of his sins", that he is in full rebellion against...and in the end it is the church that causes all parties the most trouble and pain.
Greene remained a more-or-less believing Catholic. I read this book and was stumped as to why. The vileness of the hierarchy was so clear to me, I couldn't imagine why anyone would read it and not drop christianity on the spot. But no matter one's stance on the religion herein portrayed, there's no denying the power of the tension between authority and self in creating an engaging and passionate story. A must-read.
Saturday, September 16, 2017
KELLY JENSEN & JENN BURKE (Chaos Station #5)
$3.49 ereader platforms, available now
Rating: 5* of five
The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix’s relationship has always pushed boundaries—personal and professional alike—but their love and commitment is stronger than ever. So strong that Zander’s ready to ask commitment-shy Felix the question of a lifetime when he’s interrupted. The Chaos is being hacked, and crucial, top secret information about the project that created Zander—and his fellow super soldiers—has been leaked.
Neither man could have expected the enormity of what’s discovered at the end of the data trail: an entire colony of super soldiers run by the very doctor who changed Zander’s life forever. And now she needs them both—Zander to train her new crop of soldiers, and Felix’s new crystalline arm to stabilize their body chemistry.
With help from the unlikeliest of allies, Zander, Felix and the Chaos crew must destroy the project and all its ill-gotten information. But when the team is split up and Felix is MIA after a dangerous run, galactic disaster is a very real possibility…and Zander may have missed his chance to ask for forever.
My Review: I will miss this series very much. It came into my reading life exactly when I needed it. As endings to books go, and as endings to series go, I can't find fault or register a complaint.
There's a pearl-clutcher for yinz.
Probably my favorite scene in the whole Chaos Station universe takes place in this book: Zed and Flick are trudging across the fifty-centigrade surface of 83 Leonis Bb after tracing some vile malefactors' flight path back to it. There they discover an illegal, unregistered human colony sweltering in the revolting heat. Having lost their transportation off planet in a crash landing, they need to locate some form of beacon to get a signal to their compadres aboard the Chaos. This is not going to stop Zed from continuing a conversation he's been planning to have with his beloved for a while now: Zed wants to get married. Flick is, politely phrased, ambivalent. He has all sorts of reasons. All of which Zed has answers to, eg:
“Men have been allowed to marry other men since the fucking twenty-first century, Flick,” Zed growled.This made me laugh and cry. How perfect, like the whole idea of not being *able* to marry is so firmly dead that it's a feeble excuse of an excuse not to marry. If there's a 23rd century, I hope like hell that's how it'll feel to the people in it.
I'm glad the end of the series was so fully satisfying. It made me smile through the misty-eyed "I always cry at weddings" sentimentality. And I loved the entire experience of reading a good SF series that had people like me as its main characters.
Goodreads user Simone made this JPEG of Zed's thoughts at the end of the book that sums this entire series up beautifully:
JENN BURKE & KELLY JENSEN (Chaos Station #4)
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix's relationship has been to the brink and back: the Human-Stin War, imprisonment and an actual death/resurrection. Zander's death, to be specific, and the experience has left him…changed. The mysterious race known as the Guardians chose to revive him and appointed him as their emissary. A high honor, but he could do without the group of would-be cultists following him around the galaxy.
When a recently discovered species destroys a stin probe, Zander's new role soon commands all of his time and focus. The human ambassador—Felix's ex-lover, much to Zander's annoyance—pulls them into strategy talks aimed at preserving galactic peace. Soon everyone is relying on Zander's Guardian tech to telepathically communicate with the strange aliens.
Only Felix seems concerned with the strain piling up on Zander, but he has his own resolve tested when the very stin that imprisoned him show up to a summit. Zander and Felix will both have to find a way to face their doubts and preserve their love—while preventing another galaxy-wide war.
My Review: There was more "w"-verbing (winking, which I abhor, abominate, and despise) at 74% but for that one and only time it was less than revolting in context.
I'll get to reviewing before long.
**A GOOD WHILE LATER**
So another solid four-plus star outing in a series whose SFnal street cred, if we could only get some straight boys to read it, would carry it far beyond the m/m ghetto. The resonance is my absolute favorite race so far, not excluding humans, because "fluffy yellow partner unit" made me laugh until my belly ached. I could *see* Flick's confused amused slightly insulted mostly bemused face when he heard that. Men with curly blond hair must get similar nonsense thrown at them all the time, and the fact that he's the reasonably public partner of the Emissary of the Guardians can't make life as a mop-top any easier.
The political elements of this outing are genuinely involving, again without reference to m/m content...well, except for the fact that Flick is the space equivalent of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, having bagged humanity's chief envoy Theo as well as Zed the Emissary. Ducks always envy the swans, hm? What is it about some people, anyway, that they can score the best and the brightest without seeming to bring anything all that exciting to the table themselves? But wait, Flick is...well...Flick is from a world where ambassadors are equivalent to unicorns and now his sweet, lovely ex is one and his amazing one-true-love man is one and he's, you know, just this guy. His head's whirling. He's interacting with the stin, the very same precise stin who tortured him almost to death during his four-year stint as a POW just cuz. He's way outside his comfort zone and he only gets more remote from it as Ambassador Theo the ex-lover sets Emissary Zed the one-true-love's teeth on edge and causes him to act like a sulky adolescent ninny. Which for all of me is the best moment in the book. I love that Zed gets all "my man step off or suffer" about his Flick. Sure it's silly! No way in hell can even the scrummy hotness that is Theo compete with Zed's amazeballs pedigree, position, and prior claim on Flick's feelings. But your man being just a little extra attentive and a scoche more possessive in the presence of a potential rival? Yes please. Very agreeable if not carried too far, and Authors Burke and Jensen don't let it get out of hand.
The tragedies that befall our heroes are testing and frightening and the stakes are unfathomably high: a renewal of the Human-Stin War with a side order of Species Four/the resonance in the stin's sights as well. Flick pays a horrible personal price to keep this from happening. Zed will have nightmares the rest of his life about Flick's sacrifice, its reason and its agent.
That's the set-up, however, for one of the best endings I've read in a book lately. The resolution of the war threat and the reward for Flick's horrifying sacrifice is...sweet beyond belief, balm for so many wounds these awful author-ladies have put our guys through. I would give the book five stars just for the ending.
I can't quite do that. The ashushk have had their major inning. The stin, well, not sure that we need a lot more stin assholishness but we'd be better informed if we saw a weentsy bit more of their culture for some whys. It's the resonance that causes me to dock a half-star from the rating. I know, because it's been made clear, that the series ends with book five. You introduce me to the resonance and expect I'll trot happily alongside the carriage as it briskly bowls AWAY from the coolest aliens yet?! (Sorry, Qek.) In one of this era's billion-page-per-volume nonillionologies, sure okay I get it we'll be back around this way one say soon.
BUT THIS IS IT!
So very not cool. I'm being kind because ending but absent that I'd probably bust this one down a whole star or even two for the tease this represents.
Write more books in this series, please. Not with Zed and Flick, even, just in the wonderful and rich universe. Space operas are a blast to read, and I am completely at your mercy, great BurkeandJensen, for writing a solid one with men like me in it.
KELLY JENSEN & JENN BURKE (Chaos Station #3)
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: Zander Anatolius has been revived from the fatal effects of the super-soldier program, but now he has to face his estranged family and tell a story few would believe. With his lover and the crew of the Chaos at his side, Zander returns home to a media frenzy, threats from the military and pressure to join the family business.
Felix Ingesson still struggles with the horror of believing Zander dead. And no matter how strong their emotional connection is, Felix feels out of place in the glittery world of Zander's rich family. His lover would be better off without a broken, low-class ship's engineer holding him back.
My Review: When the crew receives word that another of Zander’s former teammates needs rescue, Felix travels with the Chaos...setting Zander free. But when Zander is arrested for treason, the men realize they need each other as much as ever—not only to survive, but to make their lives worth living.
I'd definitely read these as SF novels without hesitation. It's lagniappe that they include hot gay sex scenes. Written by nice straight ladies. Which I still very much do not comprehend. I'll try for a review very soon.
So I've finished the series now. In a lot of ways, this is where the tone of the books changes. This is the moment of truth for the couple as well as for Flick and Zed the men. After the astonishing events of Lonely Shore, anyone could be forgiven for needing to take a breath, step back, and just be for a while. Being Flick, he doesn't do this by halves. He walks to the Chaos, climbs on board, and flies into the black without saying one damned word to Zed. Who is, unsurprisingly, dealing with the very public fallout of the previous book's events, and the very private and equally life-altering family ructions that a wealthy youngest son can expect when he comes home from being thought dead in a vicious war trailing clouds of glory and his one true love the lower class station rat.
Flick looks at the world the Anatolius name entitles Zed to enter and his brain freezes, his balls try to climb inside to hide, and his spirit screams "FOR ALL THOSE USELESS GODS' SAKES RUN RUN RUN!!" He has no idea what fork to use...food itself was scarce in his household. He has no concept of how to dress...clothing simply kept him from being naked, for the most part. All those educated, cultured voices! All the smiles that feel like sneers!
Zed just sees the living room full of brothers, parents, sisters-in-law waiting to go in to dinner.
That's a gap. And Flick running away hurts like stin poison. But he's not just running away, he's running to save a needy comrade. Zed's troubles escalate, his powerful family limbers up the big guns (Lawyers, Guns, and Money style). Unlike Warren Zevon's spoiled brat holed up in Honduras, though, Zed is targeted by the very people he's given up his humanity for, the AEF. He is still an embarrassment for the AEF because his existence means they have to acknowledge their disgusting super-soldier program that caused Zed so much damage. Now the AEF have received a small gift from the Universe: Zed's recent actions have placed him within their reasonable grasp, and they take full advantage of this to plot the final solution to the Zed Question.
Flick? He's not having any of it. He might be skittish as all hell from a bad childhood, enslavement at the stin's claws, and almost a decade of living in the vacuum of Zed's presumed death (while, ironically, it's Flick's presumed death in stin slavery that makes Zed vanish so utterly into the super-soldier program) that he can't and won't tolerate threats to his true love no matter who makes them. It is a constant in his life and the series.
But the current imbroglio is challenging in so many ways, and the superbaddies are so thick on the ground, and the resolutions to the Chaos crew's problems continue to be just out of reach, and...well. I can tell you this much without spoilering anything: Power corrupts and those in power see everything through the stinking atmosphere of their corruption.
The book ends with our augmented crew still flying, still precariously free, and still very much a real-feeling family. Pain and happiness come from so many of the same roots in intimacy, don't they. Blessedly for Zander and Flick, those roots are deep as the oceans in each man's soul. So satisfying.
JENN BURKE & KELLY JENSEN (Chaos Station #2)
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: All they can do is live day to day...
Felix Ingesson has returned to his duties as the Chaos's engineer with Zander Anatolius, his ex-boyfriend-turned-broken-super-soldier, at his side. Hope means something again. But there's nothing Felix can do to battle the alien poison flowing through Zander's veins, or his imminent mental decline. With each passing day, the side effects of Zander’s experimental training are becoming more difficult to ignore.
When the ruthless Agrius Cartel seeks their revenge—including an ambush and an attempt to kidnap the Chaos’s crew—Zander is pushed over the edge. He can no longer hide his symptoms, nor does he want to. But hurting Felix when he’s not in control of himself is Zander’s worst nightmare—when it nearly happens, he agrees to seek help. Even if that means trusting the unknown.
As Zander places his life in alien hands, Felix appoints himself his lover’s keeper. And though he tries to be strong, he can’t ignore the fact that he might lose Zander…forever this time.
My Review: Burke & Jensen slayed me. They made every choice inevitable and each response inescapable. And, in the end, ma'at is preserved.
There is more to say but I can't find the words or the coordination to type them just now.
*******THE NEXT DAY********
This is going to be one of those "why this book made me feel thus-and-such" reviews. If those personal-reflection reader response reviews piss you off, and gawd knows there are plenty who feel that way about them, scroll on.
For most people, falling in love doesn't fix things, it fucks them up. Falling in love with someone whose background is the diametric opposite of your own is exciting, and challenging, and well within the definition of "a really crappy idea." Felix the station rat and Zander the rich kid...inherent inequality in the relationship's power structure and all the resentment that breeds on both sides...none of that is delved into very deeply because the current story arc is very much about survival. Zed's survival as a living being and Flick's survival as an emotional being.
The titanic tsunami heading for the men is the physiological modifications that Zed, hollowed out by the incalculable and unfixable loss of Flick to the stin, volunteered to undergo. His transformation into a part-stin superwarrior, done in a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of losses to the stin, was a success in that Zed can replicate the stin warriors' greatest advantage over humans: the ability to phase shift, or locate themselves physically in a dimension just enough different from 4D spacetime to prevent humans from touching (therefore killing) them, but still close enough to allow those in it to see and interact with targets trapped within 4D spacetime.
In a universe with 11 dimensions as M theory requires, that's plausible to me, as is the existence of j-space, the hyperdimension that allows interstellar travel without breaking the cosmic speed limit c . Scientists are eyerolling, wincing, and generally scoffing I'm sure. Plausible is all I myownself require of fiction, not strict scientific rigor. I want writers of SF to allow me room to suspend my disbelief, not require me to fling my admittedly meager scientific knowledge out the proverbial airlock.
Back to Zed...his abilities helped win the war (sort of) for humanity because he disobeyed direct orders and saved a group of civilians even though it ran the very real risk of revealing his and his team's megasuperdouble secret modifications. His act was publicly revealed without his knowledge and this fictional universe's superpower, called the Guardians because no one knows what they call themselves, step in with their superpowers and call a halt to the stins' effort to eradicate humanity. Then Zed and his fellow modificatees are...abandoned. Cut loose. Left to twist because supporting them would mean acknowledging them and that would have horrendous political consequences.
Support them? What, pray tell, is the problem with that? Don't we always support our veterans? Hmm? Don't we always take care of the men and women who are damaged and the families who are destroyed by the will of the politicians in pursuit of the Greater Good?
Zed and his team are losing themselves. Losing their minds, literally, as in the depredations of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and disease...kuru for one nightmare-inducing example. Flick is trapped in hell with the man he loves vanishing before his eyes. Zed will be there, fully himself one moment and the next he's simply gone. Unresponsive at best, inappropriately responsive at worst, defaulting to his military training in managing phase shifts to respond to threats. Who happen to be his friends aboard the Chaos and his true love. When Zed comes back from one such moment while throttling the life from Flick, everyone knows the end of Zed's life is coming closer by the moment. It's impossible he'd want to kill Flick.
The desperate hail-mary play of taking Zed to Qek (the ashushk pilot)'s home world to seek treatment for the incurable and rapidly progressing condition that induced stin-state abilities have gifted Zed with is, ultimately, unsuccessful and Zed dies during the last-ditch treatment. The Guardians swoop in, take Zed's body, and fix him; during his time being fixed by them, Zed learns he has a higher purpose in the Guardians' plans for the galaxy and they want him to remain among them. The pull of his all-pervasive love for Flick leads him to decline the opportunity to fully be whatever they plan for him to be, and with great sadness the Guardians return Zed to his true love, his dear friends, and his family.
Now comes that personal stuff. Flick's grief on losing Zed again (remembering that they were separated by war for a decade) is so accurately and harrowingly rendered that I was left a sobbing wreck. I've experienced a lot more grief than most people have because I was a young gay man during the AIDS epidemic. Loss was common. Grief was pervasive. And then I went and fell in love with a man who had full-blown AIDS.
Three years of good days, bad days, worse days, hospitalizations, spending nights in bedside chairs, doing small practical things like sponge baths and, later, diaper changes, holding Bland's hand when he was only bodily present and crying as quietly as I could hoping against hope he'd come back and then hating myself for wishing it on him as he came back in horrible pain. Two friends of ours, Joe and Domingo, would come and get me every so often and take me to some restaurant near Columbia Presbyterian and feed me something. I'd usually break down and sob somewhere along the line, and I still can't quite believe that they kept doing it for me, for Bland, subjecting themselves to public embarrassment like that. I was well beyond caring about suchlike nonsense at that point.
Then came the day that, looking at Bland lying helpless and hooked to a ventilator, a morphine drip, IVs of useless drugs trying to combat the cytomegalovirus killing him exquisitely painfully and slowly, and the fog of my wretchedness lifted for the first time in what felt like forever. I went home to compose myself and, for the first time in what felt like forever, didn't cry the entire subway ride from St. Luke's-Roosevelt to my home in Battery Park City.
My stocky Bajan wrestler was dead and he was never coming back. His body was there, and once in a while he'd try to come back to me sitting there holding his hand by squeezing it and focusing for a brief second or two on me before the fog came back. I was holding him inside this hell because I loved him and he loved me and I couldn't let go.
So the next morning I went, as always, to the hospital. Walking into the ward in a clear, in fact crystalline and brittle, bubble of purpose. I found Bland's younger sister sitting with him, a deeply religious young woman of the finest kind. She loved the sinner and, if she hated the sin, she kept it to herself, for which I was and am grateful. I sat down next to my true love, took his other hand, and said, "I love you too much to see you suffer this way. It's time to let go. Let go and go home, my love." I repeated this for hours as he tried to...I don't know what, speak or communicate...in brief spurts between vacancies. His sister held his other hand and, when I couldn't speak, said the same thing to him.
We left together. She drove me home, I thanked her for the ride, and she said, "no one could ever hope for a better friend than you are to my brother. Thank you."
That night Bland died. He was 34. I was 31.
It was two years before I could sleep in our bed. It was six years before I could climb out of the bottle and coke vial to decide to live again. (A terrifying heart arrhythmia made the choice stark.)
And, this past May, it was twenty-five years since Bland Jentry Carr and I died. I put together a face to wear while I did the whole existing thing, but I was gone and not for the first time in my life. Whoever I am now is not the man I was or would have been if I'd kept hold of my Beejay. I suppose it's one reason I attract young men as lovers...in a funny way this old crippled-up man is really just 25. I'm not sure how I got here, to be honest, and there are days when I'm not sure I'm all that happy to be here, but here is where I am. Like Flick, I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other until I do what needs doing.
But I won't get Flick's miracle. Reading about it, however, satisfied something very, very deep inside me. That something that says "yes" to the bass thrum of loving another being so completely that their happiness and your own are completely entwined.
I still talk to Bland every morning as I shower and move through my routine. I don't believe in a god, I don't believe in a heaven, but I do believe that the huge energy of a human life leaves some mark, some dent in the fabric of spacetime, and I address myself to that. It is enough for me to express my love for all the men I've lost over the horrible plague years to those dents in spacetime. Reality is unforgiving, but fiction kisses it better.
Read this series. It kisses your hurts better (after inflicting them, that is).
KELLY JENSEN & JENN BURKE (Chaos Station #1)
$1.99 ereader platform editions, available now
Rating: 4 happy stars of five
The Publisher Says: "You're not real. Felix Ingesson is dead."
The war with the alien stin is over, but Felix Ingesson has given up on seeing his lover, Zander Anatolius, ever again. Zander's military file is sealed tighter than an airlock. A former prisoner of war, Felix is attempting a much quieter life keeping his ship, the Chaos, aloft. He almost succeeds, until Zander walks on board and insists that Felix isn't real.
A retired, broken super soldier, Zander is reeling from the aftereffects of his experimental training and wants nothing more than to disappear and wait for insanity to claim him. Then he sees footage of a friend and ally—a super soldier like him—murdering an entire security squad with her bare hands and a cold, dead look in her eyes. He never expected to find Felix, the man he'd thought dead for years, on the ship he hired to track her down.
Working with Felix to rescue his teammate is a dream come true…and a nightmare. Zander has no exit strategy that will leave Felix unscathed—or his own heart unbroken.
My Review: Romantic fiction doesn't need much to keep the people buying...lovers separated by factors within their control and/or outside their control who, despite the obstacles, choose to make love work. It's a trope that's worked for millennia, it will work for as long as human beings keep falling in love.
This story goes above and beyond the basics in an important way. It develops the world the men who are the primary couple inhabit to a significantly greater degree than others in the genre. It is also the most fully science-fictional SF romantic novel I've read. I'd read it for the SF elements, albeit I'd judge it more harshly than I do as a romantic novel.
Part of that is altered expectations. At one time fifty or so years ago, world-building in SF was much lighter and less multidimensional than it is today. Novels were 200-ish pages as a matter of course and now they tend towards the 400-page end as a matter of course. There is vastly greater scope to do world-building in that kind of length. This novel, in common with most others in the romantic fiction genre, is 200-ish pages, so has the scope of a fifty-year-old SF novel for world-building plus the need to bookhorn in love and sex in a way that was and largely is unthinkable in mainstream SF.
Authors Burke and Jensen do a really fine job of this balancing act. I am impressed that they take the basic furniture of two disparate genres and re-cover them in harmonious upholstery, creating a charming and eclectic mental space for their men, women, and aliens to inhabit. It takes a good deal of work to do this at all, and even more to do it well.
I found the series in the Gay SF reading group and, on a hunch, Kindled the whole lot at once. Relieved that I did because I'm most certainly going to read them all. Zed and Flick are a terrific creation in that they're just guys. One's a tinkerer, one's a serious soldier, together they're little boys playing house and they're wounded warriors desperately seeking balance and order in lives mangled along with their tortured, altered bodies.
Flick/Fixer/Felix fixes stuff. He focuses on stuff because he was captured by the alien stin (and a note here on how very much I approve of Burke and Jensen's use of the lowercase for the aliens' race-names; we're not Humans, now are we?) and, while enslaved as a miner, tortured just for the fun of it by the insectoids. Stuff doesn't pity him or find him disgusting or try to help him. It waits for him to do what needs doing to fix it. His most powerful need is to belong, the be along with a group that gets him. His great good fortune is that he has that in the crew of the Chaos.
Elias is the captain, his business partner, and as close to Flick as a beloved older brother. Elias is straight but like everyone else in the spacers's world he couldn't care less what other people do in their sex lives. Elias is probably the least developed character, existing in relation to Flick and supplying needed perspective when a PoV change suits the story. He is believable for all that: His focus is on the bodily and mental health of the small crew he took on as his family. He's a dad. He makes sure everything is ordered and safe for his kids to be able to play and work and be as happy as they can be. He worries about them all, loves them all, and exasperatedly picks up after them, scolding all the while. I relate to Elias, and love him.
Nessa, the doctor, is Elias's love interest. Flaming red hair and a protective streak a mile wide have combined to seduce Elias and enchant the crew. Flick even loses his defensive shields when Nessa pushes him. She is a committed healer and makes everyone's health an obsession. It's hard not to see her as Dr. McCoy from TOS, with curves. I wished from the minute she came on my screen that I could book an appointment with her. She's the kind of doctor I'd love to find IRL.
Qek is the resident alien, a little blue woman instead of a little green man. Only she's not a woman, exactly, but a genderless ashoshk individual who identifies as a woman in order to live more easily among the humans she left her home world to study. Her race is technologically ahead of humanity, and like humanity has suffered the scourgings of the stin, so she is the pilot of the ashoshk-engined Chaos as she understands the tech better than anyone else on the ship. She is, as well, Flick's friend. Among the genderless ashoshk, Qek's offer of friendship to Flick is very deep. In a novel I love, Islandia, there is a concept of friendship similar to the ashoshk one called "linamia" or "powerful non-sexual love." It is a concept that, I fear, is largely missing in modern human culture and I think that's a sin. It's also a lifeline for poor, shattered Flick. Qek delights me, the anti-Neelix, the soothing and sweet and calm eternal outsider with sharp eyes and a soft heart.
Zed. Yes, well, then there's Zed. A younger son in a family of immense wealth and power, Zed chose a career in the military to be with Flick, his childhood bestie and young-adult first love. The war with the stin erupted and the two young lovers are separated forever by Flick's capture and presumed death at the claws of the stin. The powerful man whose love is fully, passionately given to the station rat boy he spent his childhood hanging with, suddenly has nothing. No bestie, no lover, nothing. (Except obscenely large piles of money and a family that adores him, but let's not get too logical...the man we're discussing here is very, very young and has zero perspective so let's go with his view of things.) So he volunteers to become a covert operative for his army, then for the black-ops experiment that informs the entire rest of his (drastically shortened) life. Zed is destroyed by Flick's loss and, unlike Flick who strives to endure and survive and make it the hell out of stin captivity, seeks annihilation so he can stop his agony of emptiness. In peacetime, Zed's the kind of man who self-medicates his agony. Me too, Zed.
Now all the characters are required to band together to rescue an old friend of Flick and Zed's who is on a rapid downward spiral. They find her, rescue her, lose her, fight a battle to recapture her, and the complications mount. New enemies are made, old wounds renewed. And the bittersweet joy of love regained, Zed and Flick's true and deep love for each other, widened to include their crew, is adulterated by the progressive nature of Zed's black-ops experimental enhancements. His downward spiral, slower than his and Flick's friend's spiral, is nonetheless real.
He's going to hell, but he's taking the scenic route and that leads right to Flick's bed. The place he's wanted to be for nine long, hellish years of knowing that Flick was dead.
And I plan to go right along with them all.